From a humble background, Coleridge-Taylor went on to become admired by Elgar, likened to Mahler in the US, and fêted as one of Britain’s top composers. But alas, this was no rags to riches tale, says Calum MacDonald
One of the most remarkable stories in the chequered history of British music is the fact that an underprivileged coloured boy from a broken home rose swiftly to become one of the best-known of all British composers and the first to win acclaim in the US – only to die an early death from overwork and be slowly, though never completely, forgotten.
Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (the hyphen was a clerical error, but he found the double-barrel worked to his advantage) was born in Holborn, London, the illegitimate son of Daniel Taylor, a Creole doctor from Sierra Leone who practised in Croydon, where he met Samuel’s mother, Alice Martin. Contrary to the story that Daniel returned to Africa because his career was blighted by Victorian prejudice, he left England to take up an appointment as Imperial Coroner for the Gambia; he kept in touch with Alice’s family and later helped to promote his son’s reputation in Sierra Leone. Alice subsequently married, so Samuel grew up as the child of white lower-middle-class parents in Croydon, where he would be based all his life. Alice’s family were highly musical, and Samuel’s talents as a violinist and singer in local churches attracted the attention of a succession of musical patrons, the last of whom paid his way into the Royal College of Music, which he entered in 1890. The undersized ‘boy of colour in patched trousers’ soon impressed his teachers: he was already an accomplished violinist and composer, and shortly after he became an RCM student Novello began publishing a series of anthems he had written. Friends and fellow students at the RCM included Holst and Vaughan Williams and, after first studying the piano and violin, he became a composition pupil of Stanford. Remarkably, perhaps, he appears to have encountered little opposition on account of his colour.
His teachers were impressed by his promise, and his music soon crossed the Channel. Elgar, himself only just gaining public celebrity in the wake of the Enigma Variations, declared that Coleridge-Taylor was ‘far away the cleverest of the young men’, and engineered an orchestral commission for him at the 1898 Three Choirs Festival. The resulting work, an orchestral Ballade, received a rapturous press and a standing ovation. But truly extraordinary success awaited him. Later that same year the premiere of his cantata Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast, first part of a vocal trilogy based on Longfellow’s 1855 poem The Song of Hiawatha, propelled him to international fame and respect.
By 1898 the native Americans were confined to reservations, an object of pity to many, but the object of intense interest from ethnographers and anthropologists. Longfellow’s verse, evoking their culture when it was still in full flower, inspired Coleridge-Taylor to full-blooded melodic and orchestral invention, and he proved especially adept at fashioning memorable tunes to the distinctive metrical scheme with which the poet had sought to imitate the effect of American Indian song. The other two parts of the trilogy, The Death of Minnehaha and Hiawatha’s Departure, followed swiftly and one of the first performances of the complete score was at the 1900 Birmingham Festival, where Coleridge-Taylor again received a standing ovation, in stark contrast to the muted welcome for the premiere of Elgar’s Dream of Gerontius in the same festival. Within a couple of years Hiawatha was one of the most popular works in the choral repertoire, and Coleridge-Taylor was in demand as a composer and conductor. Indeed, he was idolised. Several Coleridge-Taylor societies were formed in the US for black singers to perform and study his works, and in 1904 his first visit to America climaxed in a three-day Coleridge-Taylor Festival in Washington and Baltimore. He was still only 28.
This sudden rise to fame did not go to his head. Nor did it prove of much financial use. As a penurious musician recently out of college, he had sold the copyright of Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast to his publisher outright for a mere £15, little realizing that the vocal score alone would sell some 140,000 copies before World War I. Sharing in none of that profit, he was obliged to support his family by constant work. In 1900 he had married fellow RCM student Jessie Walmisley, against her parents’ initial opposition, and they had two children, Hiawatha and Avril, both destined to be notable musicians.
Coleridge-Taylor proved prolific and adept at contributing to the contemporary repertoire, composing nearly 100 works in his short life. They include several further cantatas, an opera, a symphony, a notable violin concerto and sonata, orchestral suites, theatre scores, songs and chamber music. But, in order to maximize his income, he also produced a stream of salon music, much of it for violin and piano but subsequently arranged for many different ensembles. And in addition to his composing he was in demand as a conductor and teacher and was almost incessantly travelling to fulfil engagements. All this activity seems to have weakened his never very strong constitution, however, and in August 1912 he collapsed at West Croydon railway station and died soon afterwards, aged just 37. His tombstone reads: ‘Too Young to Die / His Great Simplicity / His Happy Courage / In an Alien World / His Gentleness / Made All that Knew Him / Love Him’.
It’s easy nowadays to make too much of the ‘alien world’ aspect of Coleridge-Taylor’s life. He was half-English to start with, knew the music business of his time thoroughly, and had a happy knack of making friends. Composer Havergal Brian, reminiscing about him in 1934, recalled his conversation as ‘refreshingly concise and swift’ and praised his ‘natural generosity and unselfishness’. He also had astonishing popular success, and though there may have been a touch in this of fascination with the foreign and ‘alien’, it was mainly founded on the undeniable quality of his works. Nevertheless, for all his mastery of the language of European romanticism, he was intensely proud of his African heritage. In 1900, he was elected a delegate to a Pan-African Conference in London which aimed to raise awareness of the harsh conditions endured by African peoples throughout the British Empire. And in the US it was very much as a black musician that he was welcomed and admired. One newspaper report of his first Washington appearance declared that when Coleridge-Taylor ‘walked upon the platform of Convention Hall last Wednesday night, and made his bow to four thousand people, the event marked an epoch in the history of the Negro race of the world’. And during his last US visit in 1910, when Gustav Mahler was conductor of the New York Philharmonic, Coleridge-Taylor was hailed as ‘the Black Mahler’. Many of his works allude to the culture of racial minorities, usually black, even if these are mediated through the decorum of white authors or musical techniques. As early as 1897 he was urged by the black American poet PJ Dunbar to explore the wealth of black music. Before long he was consciously aiming to do for negro music what Dvoπák had done for Bohemian and Grieg for Norwegian folk music. But Coleridge-Taylor depicted many exotic or minority cultures in his music. He wrote African Romances, Moorish Pictures, a Gypsy Suite, the rhapsody The Bamboula based on a West Indian dance, Toussaint Louverture about the black revolutionary liberator of Haiti and a cantata A Tale of Old Japan. His Hiawatha Overture uses the Negro spiritual ‘Nobody knows the Trouble I see’ and one of his most impressive orchestral moments is a set of Symphonic Variations on an African Air.
Though most of Coleridge-Taylor’s works began to be neglected as a result of the shift in public taste after the Great War, the Petite Suite de Concert was long a staple of the lighter repertoire, and Hiawatha kept his name alive with the spectacular annual staged performances which Malcolm Sargent conducted at the Albert Hall for two weeks every summer from 1924 to 1939. After the war it, too, was generally dismissed as a faded product of a bygone era, but every revival has shown that it still has vigorous life and, as public taste has changed again, the colour, tunefulness and unabashed romanticism of Coleridge-Taylor’s music come to seem the symbols of an innocence we have lost.
This article first appeared in the June 2007 issue of BBC Music Magazine